Hunting the Thai hit-men
Story by Steve Sandford
GUNMEN are expected to be as busy as professional pollsters after the announcement last week by Thailand’s electoral commission of the coming Senate race, with voters going to the polls in April.
That’s why the Royal Thai Police have released a list of known hitmen they want stopped from affecting the outcome of the vote.
But human rights groups are concerned that the police may use the list to eliminate political opponents, while ignoring the source of cash that is paying for assassinations of political candidates.
The latest clean-up follows a long history of blood-splattered campaigns often referred to as “the killing season”, with candidates hiring mui phuen, or gunmen, to rub out their competition.
“In previous crackdowns, what’s happened is they arrest a couple of heavies from the opposition party — that’s all that happened,” says Bangkok-based Australian academic Chris Baker, who has co-authored a series of books on modern Thai history with professor Pasuk Phongpaichat. “Many powerful people in localities still settle their disputes using violence and they, by and large, get away with it. Hence, there’s a certain level of impunity.”
In the latest attempt to stop a campaign killing spree ahead of the election day, Major-General Vinai Thongsong, who heads the police’s Crime Suppression Division, announced a manhunt for the guns-for-hire.
As head of the recently formed Centre for Suppression of Influential Figures and Gunmen, Thongsong has vowed to capture at least 27 of the 108 alleged gunmen on its “Most Wanted” roster by year’s end
He has a crack team of SWAT commandos on 24-hour standby.
To garner public assistance, the police set up a website — www.csd.go.th — displaying the most notorious and detailing their past rap sheets, known hang-outs and personal habits.
Buntree Musaka, a former army sergeant who allegedly murdered five people including two women in a contract killing, sits at the top of the list.
Further down, the No6 suspect, Jittakorn Thammetha, might be difficult to miss at a bar. He is known to fire his favourite M-16 and AK47 machine guns overhead when he’s drunk.
Would-be bounty hunters can download the mug shots. Rewards of $US1000 ($1335) to $US2500 are offered for information leading to their capture.
The original list contained 120 names, but 12 men have already surrendered to police, fearing extra-judicial sentencing that might include a police bullet.
Suspect lists and urgent deadlines are nothing new in Thailand, and that troubles the Asian Human Rights Council.
“If you say there are 100 people or so on this list — and there is certainly a much larger number than that in Thailand who could be identified as killing people in exchange for money — then by what criteria are people on this list being included and others excluded,” says Nick Cheesman, who speaks for the Hong Kong-based human rights watchdog.
Cheesman, who spent seven years working with refugees in Thailand, fears that the latest government-sponsored clean-up will result in the deaths of innocent victims, much like the Government’s three-month war on “dark forces” in 2003
Purportedly a crackdown on the nation’s drug trade, more than 4000 suspected narcotics traffickers were killed or disappeared after Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s Government distributed highly questionable black lists that contained names of alleged dealers
International human right groups accused Thailand of using extra-judicial hit squads to execute most of the targeted suspects.
Innocent bystanders, including children, were also killed.
Most of the cases remain unsolved and the Australian-educated Cheesman holds out little hope that the Government will bring to justice those responsible for giving the orders. “When police are accused of extra-judicial killing, even in the event that there is any kind of inquiry, it’s only going to happen at the level at which the police officers who were responsible for the killing directly are involved.”
In fact, policemen and soldiers often “moonlight” as hired gunmen.
But Thongsong of the CSD insists that his hit list includes only serious criminals, which is why he remains adamant that the police must stop them, through arrests or otherwise.
“One of my biggest cases involved the Godfather of Chonburi,” the veteran cop recalls, referring to the self-proclaimed “half-businessman, half-gangster” Somchai Kunpleume, who rules the crime-ridden eastern seaboard province bordering Cambodia. “Gunmen took an order from Kam Nan Poh (Thai for godfather) to murder a local chief of a sub-district.”
The gunmen’s subsequent confessions led to the arrest and conviction of Kunpleume for paying them three million baht ($102,000) to eliminate his business rival Prayoon Sitichote.
Despite being handed a 25-year prison sentence, the 68-year old-business tycoon, regarded by many as one of the country’s most powerful crime figures, remains free on bail of 10million baht while the Supreme Court considers his final appeal.
Baker says: “This is the first time that someone of that stature has been hauled in, in this way so it’s quite a change.” However, the pragmatic historian adds that whether it’s just “the exception that proves the rule” is difficult to tell.
Kamnan Poh’s case is a prime example of the special treatment granted to influential businessmen who use hired guns with strong connections to the country’s clandestine web of military and police officials.
Since its inception, the Royal Thai Police have been linked with the military to dispense law and order in Thailand, a constitutional monarchy for much of the 20th century.
According to the book Corruption and Democracy in Thailand by Pasuk Phongpaichat and Sungsidh Piriyarangsan, now leading professors at the top-ranking Chulalongkorn University, the police force was elevated during the 1950s and 60s to a point where it was called the “Fourth Army”.
General Phao Sriyanon, the most notorious police director at this time created a squad of special aides known as Aswin Waen Phet (Knights of the Diamond Ring) who acted as his personal hitmen, the book reveals.
The two security forces share a deep-rooted loyalty as servants of the kingdom and protectors of the monarchy, but a lack of disciplinary action against “rogue” officers — which continues to the current day — has given some security officials an air of impunity and encouraged them to become assassins for their political bosses or wealthy businessmen — jao pho (regional godfathers).
Thailand’s Human Rights Commissioner Surasee Kosolnavin says that as the nation continues to strive to gain the materialistic goods of the Western world, many are seeking the easy route to fame and fortune.
“Thailand now has changed too much now with globalisation — the people want to make money quickly. Money is the new religion,” the former prosecutor says.
While Thongsong, 49, acknowledges the profit motive in Thailand’s thriving murder-for-hire, he is less concerned about the links to the bagmen.
As a younger captain, Thongsong killed a gunman following a shootout near Bangkok.
“The gunmen do the job solely for the money. After they make the hit, they run from the police,” he says, grasping the cluster of gold Buddhist amulets draped around his neck as he retells the story of the botched arrest.
“They make the money the easy way and continue in their chosen occupation.”
For Thongsong, it is as simple as that.